BERLIN (Reuters) - When shoppers in New York, London or Paris come across kosher food in their neighbourhood supermarkets, it’s just one speciality product among many. When the same thing happens in Berlin, it’s a statement.
Berlin’s Jewish community, decimated by the Holocaust, has been steadily growing since Germany reunited in 1990. Thousands of Jews have moved in, synagogues, schools and shops have opened and some young rabbis have been trained and ordained.
But presence isn’t the same as acceptance. In a city weighed down by memories of its Nazi past, even small signs that Jews are a part of normal daily life again take on deeper meaning.
One such sign appeared last month when a local supermarket began selling kosher food. Stocked on shelves and in freezers next to other German and imported goods, the food prepared according to ancient Jewish dietary laws is presented like any other product.
Yehuda Teichtal, a Brooklyn-born Hasidic rabbi who advised the Nah und Gut (“Near and Good”) supermarket on its selections, is thrilled to see this in Berlin.
“This was the centre of darkness and evil, where the Nazis planned the extermination of Europe’s Jews, and now you can go into a normal supermarket and there’s a sign that says kosher,” he said.
“The Nazis failed. Where do you find Hitler and Eichmann now — on Wikipedia. Where do you see Jewish life in an open way — on the streets of Berlin!”
Of the 160,000 Jews living in Berlin before the Second World War, 90,000 fled abroad, 55,000 died in concentration camps and 7,000 committed suicide to escape Nazi terror, according to the Jewish Community of Berlin. Only 8,000 were left in 1945.
Starting in 1989, Jews from the former Soviet Union began flocking to Berlin. Young Israelis started settling here in the mid-1990s. Now there are an estimated 30,000 Jews in the city, but nobody knows for sure because not all of them are registered with the established communities.
“Many Russian Jews are not registered because, if you do, you have to pay the religious tax,” Teichtal said, referring to the tax that members of recognised religions in Germany must pay.
Those who keep kosher had a handful of restaurants and small specialty shops around the city where they could find religiously permitted food.
But Teichtal, who runs the Berlin centre of the worldwide Chabad Hasidic movement, thought more Jews would eat kosher food if they didn’t have to get to those small shops with their limited opening hours to buy it.
“If you have to go to one shop to buy wine, another to get fruit and veg and a third to buy a piece of gefilte fish, that’s one thing,” he said. “If a person goes to one supermarket and does all their shopping, it’s a completely different ballgame.”
So he scouted around for a supermarket ready to try a new line of products and found Nah und Gut, an upscale establishment in the affluent Wilmersdorf section of western Berlin. Many Jews live in the area and several of the city’s synagogues are nearby.
“We always try to have different products from around the world,” explained store manager Stefan Voelker, who is not Jewish and describes kosher food as “a bit multicultural, a bit exotic.”
The kosher products — everything from wine, beer and cheese to chocolate-covered matzo bread and frozen steaks and chicken nuggets — have interested curious non-Jewish shoppers and brought in several hundred new Jewish customers, he said.
Voelker’s biggest problem is not customer acceptance or rejection, but logistics. Almost all his kosher products come from other countries, mostly Israel, Poland, France, Belgium and Britain, and ordering small shipments can be expensive and unreliable.
Teichtal, who stressed his interest in the sale of kosher food is strictly religious and not financial, said he was searching around Europe for large wholesalers who could offer more regular supplies.
About 3 km (2 miles) away at Kosher Deli, Maurice Elmaleh has different concerns. He’s worried the new competition could hurt the small speciality kosher shops like his.
“The shops that already exist have problems to stay open,” he said in his sparse shop as a customer picked up a fresh loaf of braided challah.
“There are more Jews eating kosher, but the number is small compared to the number of Jews in Berlin,” he said. “Only about 10-15 percent of them keep kosher.”
Rabbi Reuven Yaacobov, the community’s kosher expert who moved here from Uzbekistan 11 years ago, estimated that up to 6,000 of Berlin’s Jews kept kosher and demand was steadily rising. “When I came here, there were only three shops selling kosher food. Now there are seven,” he said.
People buy kosher food for various reasons.
“There’s no single trend,” he said. “Some say it is healthier, others say they tried it and it tasted good, others say they want to be closer to God.”
He disagreed with Elmaleh about the supermarket.
“More competition is good because prices will fall,” he said. “Many Jews say kosher food here is too expensive.
“Also, if I wanted to get new customers for a kosher shop, I’d have to do a lot of advertising. But Jewish shoppers go to supermarkets anyway. Then it’s like the sweets at the check-out counter — you see them and buy them.
“Once you’ve tried kosher, you’ll ask for more,” he said.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall